Before I begin, I have to tell you, moving to a new country, especially a third world country, was never something on my bucket list. It’s not like I dreamed of doing that one day.
How I ended up in Panajachel, Guatemala 4 years ago is actually a very interesting story.
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The journey to become a freelance writer
I’ll make this short and sweet so this post isn’t a million words long. In summary, this is what happened to my life:
- was working as a hairstylist in Northern Ontario Canada for 25 years
- hated my job, hated the winter
- knew it was time to do something
- also left my abusive relationship and needed to do some personal growth work
- started volunteering at the homeless shelter to take my mind off my problems
- fell in love with all the broken loving souls there
- decided I wanted to keep doing that but somewhere it doesn’t snow
- figured out how to become a freelance writer
- did that, got a job
- left my hairstyling job and started looking for warmer countries to live in
- tea leaf reader told me to go to Guatemala
- and off I went
Phew! So obviously there were a million more things that happened but this gives you an idea.
Moving to Guatemala
You’ll be surprised to learn I didn’t do very much research at all on this country. It wasn’t even on my list of third world countries I was considering so when the tea leaf reader told me to go there I was a little shocked.
You’re probably wondering why on earth I asked a tea leaf reader to tell me where to go. I’m a Libra. We hate making decisions. ’nuff said
I had to narrow down the town I wanted to live in so I checked out International Living for some ideas and that’s how I ended up in Panajachel.
I won’t lie. I was scared out of my tree. I had no idea what on earth I was doing. I’ve done a lot of moving in my life to other cities in Ontario but moving to a new country?
Ooph. I was terrified!
Challenges of moving to a new country
There are a million. I think the biggest challenge for me was just getting around and trying to make new friends. But life is full of challenges though. I believe they make us grow stronger and give us way more cooler stories to tell.
For many of my expat friends, the number one challenge was adjusting to a different culture. Now if you’re moving from the US to Canada then there is little culture shock.
But when you’re going from, let’s say Canada or the US to Thailand or Central America (Nicaragua, Belize, etc), there’s a big shock. And for some, it’s not so easy to adjust to.
I have to tell you though, in my 4 years of living in Guatemala, not one of my friends said “oh this is too much for me” and went back to their first world country.
Nope, not one.
You handle the challenges of moving to a new country and you grow from it. Then you just fall in love with the new country you moved to and life becomes beautiful.
And then you decide you want to travel to other countries and ay ay ay….you then become an unstoppable and maybe solo female traveler. You go girl!!
Aside from the challenges, there are other things you need to prepare yourself for. I’m gonna give you a generous list of 10 things you need to know before you leave your country for new soil.
10 things you need to know before moving to a new country
Now this list is based off my experience of being a solo female traveler in Guatemala, and now Mexico. Yup I just moved again. I assumed things here would be mostly the same as in Guatemala though.
Not even close.
Many of the things I found in Guatemala and loved, well, I’m living without in Mexico. Another challenge. The list I am sharing with you is from my experience in Mexico and Guatemala but it pretty much applies to any country you plan on moving to in general.
Anyway let’s get down to some of some of the things to consider when moving to a new country. In no particular order of importance, here is my list:
- Accept their culture
I can’t tell you how many times I have to hold back pounding on the keyboard when I see an expat in a Facebook group complaining about something they don’t like in whatever country they moved to.
This is not your country. This is their country. They do things really different from what you are used to.
Not uncommon are: random fireworks, trucks driving by with huge speakers blaring some announcement, scary religious meetings that make you think they are sacrificing humans, ridiculously loud music coming off a party boats and many more loud things you simply aren’t used to.
This is their life. Every day. I you don’t like it, you are free to go but for the love of God, don’t complain about it. You chose to move there. No one forced you to.
Try to accept and embrace their culture. Take it in, love it all, add new experiences to your list.
- You’ll get sick on the food
The water is different, the fruits and meat are different, street food is hard to resist. No matter how healthy you are and how you try to avoid anything that you fear will make you sick, you will get sick. It could be as little as diarrhea or as horrible as food poisoning.
Ask around to some of the other expats to see what places to stay away from, if you can. Make sure you clean all your fruits and veggies with a disinfectant wash (made especially for these items).
I tried to stay away from purchasing open food but found what I thought to be a great place to buy my pecans, walnuts and macadamia nuts. For two years I bought them at the same place and then one day, whammo.
I was sick for 4 days and thought I was dying. Just like that.
- Learn the language
Though you will most likely find yourself hanging around many other expats, there will come a time when you are alone and stuck and have no idea what a local is trying to tell you. Google translate can’t help you there.
Take lessons before you move. Check Duolingo for the language you need. This app helped me considerably just in learning numbers and a few words, even some very important words.
There were many times I got extremely frustrated because I didn’t know what a local was trying to tell me. Learn the language.
- You will miss home, alot
I feel this should go without saying but I do need to say it. It’s not that you’ll miss all the things you used to have but just normal in person conversations with your friends. You’ll miss picking up the phone and saying “hey let’s go to the movies”.
It’s all those little things that eventually add up to really big things.
Your car, your couch, your favourite grocery store or even your favourite lake. You are going to miss all of that. It gets better with time though I do have to admit every now and then, even after 4 and a half years I still sigh “oh I wish they had red licorice here”.
- Customer service is almost non existent
The reason I bring this up is because as someone coming from North America we are definitely used to a certain level of customer service. Anyone even working in that industry just knows.
In Guatemala, well at least the little town I came from, it simply doesn’t exist (in most places anyway). They don’t care if your food sucks, they don’t care if there was a hair in your mashed potatoes. They just don’t care. I’ve heard this about other countries around the world as well.
So be prepared for really crappy customer service and don’t bother asking for the manager. They won’t care either. Suck it up and move on with your day.
- Drive with caution
I’m not really sure how anyone down here gets driver’s licenses. It’s a mystery. Peru is even worse and I heard Asia is ridiculous. If you are bringing your vehicle down to the country you are moving to, drive with caution.
The road rules are very different (though I still haven’t figured out what they are in Guatemala). The drivers are fast, reckless and careless.
I had about 5 heart attacks in Peru in a taxi. Totally out of control.
Always be cautious driving no matter where you are and if you know you are in a slightly dangerous zone, keep your windows rolled up at all times.
- Be street smart
Just like you are at home but even more so. Don’t leave your purse unattended. Don’t get into cars with strangers (even if they say they are a taxi, some of them aren’t).
You really need to use common sense and know that depending on where you are going to move, many of the locals are poor and resort to criminal measures to get money: pick pocketing, stealing purses, grabbing wallets, etc.
Just be smart about your money and your valuable belongings.
- Don’t believe everything you hear/read
I know when you start thinking about moving to a new country you start doing some online research (unlike Iva) to learn about different places.
Many will say “oh this place is so dangerous and people get robbed all the time”. This isn’t entirely true. Guatemala has a bad reputation for being very dangerous and ranks 50th on the list according to World Population Review. Though Guatemala City itself is quite dangerous, the rest of the country isn’t.
They will say murders are high but what they don’t tell you is that 90% of the murders are from domestic violence.
There is danger no matter where you go. Heck there may even be danger in the city you live in now.
- Join Facebook groups for the country you are thinking about moving to
This was one of the smartest and best things I ever could have done before moving to Guatemala. I found out what things I couldn’t get there, cheapest areas to live in, things to do and so much more.
It was especially important for me to be able to buy migraine pills. Find out those kinds of very important things first!
Here you can also make friends before you even get to the country you have chosen. Facebook groups are a valuable resource and contain so much information.
Find one or two good groups and ask questions. No question is a dumb question. Heck I even asked where to find hummus in one group. When you ask a question the answers help others who are probably wondering the same thing but are too shy to ask!
- Stay open minded and be patient with yourself
You are going to go through periods where you get frustrated, homesick, have culture shock, or other random feelings and things you’ve never experienced before in your life.
Welcome to expat life. This is how you grow and learn and it’s beautiful. Go easy on yourself. If you don’t meditate or journal you may start doing that. It helps to calm you down and reconnect you with the reason you moved in the first place.
There are going to be many things you don’t like. You can either get used to them or start looking for a new country to move to (or just go back home!)
Being an expat comes with challenges but it’s a beautiful life
The expat life is a very different life. You learn to accept and adapt. It’s liberating and frustrating. It’s amazing and exhausting. It’s all of that and so much more.
It’s not easy in the beginning, I’ll be honest. You run into so many challenges when you first move that you will find yourself questioning why you did this in the first place.
My first year in Guatemala, I had my bank account cleaned out from a bank machine that had a fraudulent chip/magnet in it. I had no clue. It took me 6 months to get my money back from my bank and then I had to scramble to get another bank account and debit cards.
It’s these things that are frustrating but everything always works itself out.
Be patient and just enjoy the journey on your beautiful new adventure. So many people are still so afraid to move to a new country because, well let’s face it, it’s a bold and scary move!!
My advice is just do it. Listen to your heart’s calling, pack your bags, buy a ticket and go.