You’ve made the leap. Sold all your stuff. You are now in a foreign country with all the fresh faced hopes that you will find a fun and exotic new life. Except there are a few downers thrown in that have the potential to make, or break, your Life As An Expat.
This is the Really Shitty Downside of Life As An Expat…
Finding a Place to Live
In our experience, the most difficult piece of the “my perfect life abroad” puzzle, is finding the right living situation. Each person is so different in their live-at-home habits. We all have quirks which our roommates either love or hate. When you swap cultures, these issues will only intensify.
The #1 most effective way to find a place to live, is to canvass the neighborhood. It is also the most uncomfortable because for many foreign residents, especially if you don’t have a car – it means you have to walk, a lot! Prepare to get lost, encounter hostile dogs and come home completely exhausted. On the upside, it also means you will learn how to get around in your new city easier and faster than ever before as you learn bus routes, pedestrian access points and the general layout of the city.
Once you do find a notice for rent, next comes the paperwork. Here in Colombia, most landowners are terrified of being screwed over by their renters. Why? Because Colombian law protects the renter more than the landlord. The result? They require a “Fiador,” or a person who owns land and is willing to put their property at risk in order to swear that you are a good person. This is also the hardest requirement to fulfill.
It’s important to note, that it is not impossible to find work-arounds. In fact, from experience, I have found places on various occasions which allowed me to live there without having a landowner sign for me. I also refuse to ever ask ANYONE to sign for me as this is an obligation which simply carries too much risk. Take hope and watch for owner-advertised properties.
Learning a New Language
For some of us, memorization of exotic words, pronunciation and/or phrases flows like wine on a Saturday night. The rest of us mere mortals can spend months or even years trying to memorize a language not to mention trying to be able to use it.
Our colleague Drew Crawford – YouTuber and Blogger on Medium, gives us his best practices for learning Spanish in a way that makes sense, and is doable for most people:
1.) Define Your Why — if you don’t know “why” you are learning a new language and are just doing it because it seems like a good idea… you will never succeed. You must have a clear reason for learning this new skill and feel an emotional connection to the success or failure of this new endeavor. I had studied Spanish for 4 years during grade school and wasn’t able to absorb much beyond the basic greetings… I didn’t learn anything because I didn’t understand “why” I needed to know Spanish. It wasn’t until university, when I realized the importance of learning a new language for work, travel and relationships, that I was finally able to absorb the information and speak it conversationally.
2.) A Brick per Day Builds a House — you have to build a strong foundation from the beginning. Once you make the “all-in” commitment to learning a new language, like Spanish, you have to make a daily effort to learning new words and building out your vocabulary EVERY DAY. If learning a new language is actually important to you, make it a priority. This might mean staying in on a Friday night or waking up early before work to get some studying in. Before you know it, your daily “bricklaying” actions will have compounded and you will have enough knowledge to fill a house.
3.) Immerse Yourself — this was the real game-changer in my journey… going to a country where Spanish was spoken and living with a local family — spending 80% of my time actually speaking the language, even if I didn’t know what to say. You could spend years studying Spanish and living in the U.S., but your level of fluency will hit a plateau and you will stop seeing growth at some point. Why? Because you have never fully immersed yourself. You may spend 2 hours per day studying Spanish, but the moment that your class ends, you are back to speaking English with the people you encounter in your daily life. Your mind never made the “mental switch” from your native language to the new language, which is absolutely crucial in achieving mastery with a new skill. Travel to a country where the language you want to learn is spoken, spend 3–6 months living with a local family, and practice EVERY DAY.
4.) You Have to Sound Stupid Before You Can Be Smart — this is the largest hurdle that most people can’t get over… they over-analyze and place so much pressure on themselves to speak perfect, that they never end up speaking at all. We all sound stupid at some point or another, especially when it comes to speaking a foreign language… you just have to embrace that fear and have the courage to choose discomfort. Remember your “why” for embarking on this journey in the first place and make a conscious effort to get better each and every day. It’s a process… and you won’t be fluent overnight. But, if you truly immerse yourself in the language and shed the layers of “self-judgement” that come with being inadequate in learning something new… I truly believe you can become fluent in any language within 6 months.
If you want to read more about Drew’s journey to fluency, read this.
Also, if you are learning more about Colombian culture, check out some of his content on Facebook.
Renting a Room
Not everyone fits into foreign culture, and many expats here in Colombia still struggle with it even after they have been here for several years.
When I moved to Brazil, I had a massive cultural choke when the family I was living with told me I had to wash my underwear by hand because they felt it was “nasty” to throw it into the wash. As someone who washes their clothes by hand….never – it was slightly traumatic and extremely frustrating to have to do. Even worse, I had to hang my undergarments in their bathroom for everyone to see – I felt constantly mortified. It’s not that different here in Colombia in some situations. Life As An Expat can be like that.
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Later, when I moved to Colombia I had a roommate who was obsessive about visitors staying in the living room, never entering the kitchen, and God help you if you disturb her sofa cushions! Coming from an American culture where we like to hang out in the kitchen with our friends even while we cook – it was one of the most frustrating house rules ever! Lesson Learned: If you are considering living with someone else – really contemplate whether their rules will work for you before you move in.
Another uncomfortable fact of life in Colombia, which almost all my other expat friends have complained about, is housekeepers. We all fantasize about having someone to organize our home, keep our bathrooms clean and wash our dishes. But, that fantasy can turn to nightmare when we realize that Colombian house maids will also pick up your laundry, organize EVERYTHING in your closet (try keeping your lonely nights dildo a secret!), and re-fold your sock drawer every week. It feels a bit awkward to say the least. Try explaining to your roommate that you prefer your mess to stay messy!
The point is, you have to be really open minded if you decide to rent a room. Also, just like in the states, living with friends can sometimes cost you that friendship if things go down the toilet.
Gringo Taxes – Being Taken Advantage Of All the Time
There are three factors that I feel lead to Gringo Taxes. For some of you, it may not be a big deal, for others it can lead to constant frustration.
- You Haven’t Fully Adjusted to the Local Currency: I have watched tourists over and over again, come to Colombia and then get thrown by all the extra zero’s in the currency. To be fair, it can be really confusing. Both the 2,000 peso note and the 20,000 peso note are blue in tone, plus the language barrier makes for a lot of confusion. The best way to overcome this obstacle, is to examine each note, review the exchange rate and try to make a mental map of the values over time. Don’t be afraid to take an extra minute or two to review your receipt and count your change while carefully checking over the prices of each item you ordered.
- You Dress Like a Gringo: This one can be a touchy topic for many foreign residents. Part of the reason you came here was to be in a climate where you can relax while wearing your favorite pair of shorts and sandals or even flip flops. The reality of it is you just painted a giant “SCREW ME OVER” target on your forehead. In most parts of the world, not just Colombia – you will do better to dress business casual. Even in hot tropical climates. If being charged slightly higher prices isn’t an issue, then maybe it isn’t worth worrying about. But, if you are on a limited retirement pension OR, teaching English where you pretty much earn like a local – then you might want to reconsider your wardrobe.
- It Happens to Everyone: Really and truthfully, even Colombians will try to get the jump on other Colombians. What you feel is a gringo tax, doesn’t only happen to gringos, it also happens to the locals. If Colombia has taught me anything, it has taught me to be more aware and conscious about the posted price, the sale price and the price that the person is asking you for. Taxi’s can be the most evil when it comes to overcharging because some drivers will quickly shut off the meter and charge you an extra 50 cents or dollar over the listed price, or they will claim that their meter doesn’t have a night-time setting while explaining to you that it cost extra because you called them via telephone, it’s after 7 pm etc. Pick your battles carefully and be sure you can or are willing to fight them to the finish.
Nothing is quite as frustrating as losing money, being overcharged or receiving incorrect change. The best thing to do, is to ask a friend who speaks the local language to teach you phrases and modalities which will help you ensure a fair shake.
Understanding the Local Culture
For me, one of the hardest things to adjust to, was local culture. Colombians are opportunists. To be fair, this country has seen war, massive inflation and social oppression which has limited their advancement. Many Colombians will have better opportunities abroad than they will in their own country. Especially if their family doesn’t already own a business, own their own house, or they have gone to another part of the country – it is tough to survive. Even most professionals make the same or less than the going rate for English Teachers in most cities. These are all factors which have led to massive corruption from literally top to bottom of the system.
Crime and punishment is also distinct here in Colombia. Wealthy criminals can often strike deals with the court through pay-offs, house arrest or threats. Poor criminals often get off completely, or win shorter sentences because the prison system is not a corporate slave system like in the US, and has much greater limits on holding capacity and funding. Also, foreign residents who commit crimes will go down faster than the Titanic, because Colombia is that way.
Everyone wants a piece of you. Women, men, their families and the guy on the corner – are all dreaming of getting ahead any way they can. To be fair, you probably came here because in a way, you can get ahead by the exchange rate or you can fill a job that a local resident lacks the education or language to be able to perform effectively. At times life abroad can feel like you are swimming in a shark tank.
The Way They Drive – It’s Not Normal
My average commute involves batshit crazy bus drivers, taxi drivers who probably won’t use a turn signal and jeeps which are piled with people. Ok, I typically tend towards the bus, but let’s be real, things are a little bit different here.
To be fair, Manizales is the most polite city in Colombia for pedestrian relations. But it still doesn’t mean you are safe on sidewalks. There is no road etiquette in general here. Bicyclists often ride on sidewalks (apparently no one explained traffic logic and etiquette to them), motorcycles will park UP ON SIDEWALKS, buses will play wild dominance games as they pass each other around hairpin curves and if you bitch about it, they probably won’t even understand what you are saying.
In my six years living here things have actually calmed down – a lot! But it doesn’t mean that you can expect normal transit situations, not by a long shot. The police do still accept bribes, extort the gringos, and drunk driving though heavily ticketed, is a real issue. The best advice I can give is hold on tight and enjoy the adventure.
The Upside of Life As An Expat
I didn’t write this article to kill your dream or send you running in fear. The point of this whole thing, is to set expectations. If you never have to deal with even half of the previous issues – count yourself extremely lucky. On the other hand, if you are feeling worn out, used up and out of energy, take heart!
The climate is amazing. Whatever your favorite season is, you can find it here. Spring, summer or even the biting chill of winter – Colombia is full of microclimates which can cater to your preference. I haven’t seen snow and ice in over 6 years, and I don’t intend to see it again anytime soon!
The people are happy and inviting. Even when they are taking advantage of you, they will do it with a smile on their face and a kind word to give you false confidence. Realistically though, the social culture in places like Medellin (where I once was helped by a super friendly prostitute), Pereira and Manizales is open and friendly to foreigners. I have found Colombians to be some of the most positive people I have ever met. If I don’t ever learn anything else here, I want to learn their positivity and stoicism in the face of total disaster. Some of the most creative, amazing and incredibly hardworking people I have ever met in my life, are Colombian.
Costs are lower. The rule of thumb for Life As An Expat, is to earn in dollars and spend in pesos. Digital nomads, retirees and people who receive dividends from investment portfolios or businesses in their own countries, have tremendous spending power here. If you have to earn in pesos, it can be done, but it will cost you tons of hard work and a lot more creativity to stand apart from the masses.
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Life As An Expat isn't for the weak of heart. I have said it over and over again for years even when I am facing up to my own difficulties. You must want it. Or you must have a local connection which gives you the "in" to all things local. It is no surprise that the ones who stay here usually have married into the culture, or they have an external income source which gives them the needed stability. The one thing I don't recommend is to assume that starting a business or getting a job will be enough to carry you.
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On the other hand, I can spend hours and hours talking about the benefits, the beauty and even the high quality exotic food which keeps me hanging on. For some the sacrifices are worth the rewards. For others, it is only a matter of time before they reluctantly pack their bags and head home. Feel free to sound off in the comments about your cultural experience.
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