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How to Adjust to a Slower Lifestyle Abroad

Tent in Laos

Do you remember what it feels like to be bored? Not just unoccupied, but really, seriously bored -– with nothing to do and nothing to distract you but the thoughts in your own head?

Chances are, it’s been a long time since you’ve had to face down the specter of truly having nothing to do – with smartphones perpetually within arm’s reach, there’s always something else to grab your attention (unless your battery dies, of course). It’s easy to forget life isn’t like this everywhere. Easy to forget, that is, until you move abroad to a place where 3G is still a novelty and the most common cabs are actually bikes.

Whether you're studying abroad or volunteering abroad, adjusting to the different pace of life in another location can come as a bit of a shock. No matter how ready you think you are, there will still be moments when you curse the absence of Snapchat or wonder how you ever got by without Google Maps. Like many aspects of living abroad, it’s all a process, but there are some ways to make your relapse into the Smartphone Stone Age a little less painful and a little more, well, productive.

1. Take a Technology Break

Bored student in Haiti

It’s one thing to be attached at the thumbs to Twitter when it’s vital for your job -- it’s another thing to spend hours browsing recipes on Pinterest when you don’t even have a working oven. Yes, escapism can be a helpful anti-homesickness coping mechanism but to an extent.

If you find yourself devoting hours to things that aren’t really relevant to your life right now, (even though they were back at home!), reconsider how you’re spending your time. Step away from Skype, leave the internet café, and emerge into sunlight, confident with the knowledge that all those hashtags will still be around three months from now (and if not, it’s because they’ve become obsolete, so who cares?).

2. Make Direct, Not Virtual, Connections

Disconnecting can be especially difficult for those of us who have a serious addiction to keeping up with the news back at home. Again, it’s fine to want to maintain that connection and know what’s going on even while you’re away, but make sure you don’t let it crowd out whatever is happening around you.

If you feel the need to check three news sources a day, try to replace one of them with your local newspaper or a magazine to better understand the current events around you. If you're obsessively checking your friend's Instagram photos, try going to some events nearby and take some exciting photos of your own.

Get involved with something you enjoy, and make new friends!. Staying in touch and maintaining your interests is all well and good, but don’t try to stay so connected that you forget where you actually are.

3. Change Expectations -- Both For Others And Yourself

The director of my former volunteer program loved the mantra “No expectations.” This is obviously easier in theory than in practice, but it’s a valuable idea to keep in mind when embarking on a cross-continental, cross-cultural adventure. You'll certainly have ideas about what you think your experience may be like, but try to keep in mind that they are only ideas and that reality will very rarely confirm what you think you know.

Trying to go into situations as open-minded as possible... will help you better manage unexpected changes when they arise.

You may plan to teach 100 students to have a perfect ten-minute conversation in English -– and find when you arrive that they can’t even answer “How are you?” Or you may intend to write daily blog posts to keep people at home updated and later discover that the internet café is only open three days a week, or that your camera SD card is incompatible with the reader you bought, or that you don’t even like blogging that much.

Go into these situations as open-minded as possible, without jumping to prior conclusions. It'll help you better manage unexpected changes when they arise and will make you more open to learning about new interests and aspects of yourself as well.

4. Let Go of Over-Scheduling

When you have a specific routine, it becomes easier to plan things: you know how long you need to walk to a certain restaurant, how to take the subway downtown, to finish grading two dozen tests. You know the determining factors around you and how to manage them, and you plan accordingly, often trying to cram as many tasks and responsibilities into one day as possible.

This may serve you well in your day-to-day life at home, but it all goes out the window once you move somewhere new. Suddenly, you don’t know when the next bus will arrive (if there is a bus) or how long it will take for you to open a checking account. Tasks that normally take you half an hour or that you could previously complete online at home will suddenly occupy half your day.

This can be a massive source of frustration for people adapting to a new environment, especially if you’re the type that likes to micromanage your schedule. Thing is, you need to accept – or at least cope with – the fact that your daily life and schedule is suddenly filled with far more uncertainty than usual.

In my experiences living in Colombia as a compulsive scheduler, I’ve personally learned to deal with the unexpected delays and red tape of maneuvering Colombian systems by never committing to more than two meetings or events per day. It hasn’t made me any more patient when I have to wait in long lines, but it has at least made me feel like less of a failure when I only make it to one meeting in a given day.

5. Keep a Journal

Volunteer in Ghana

This may be more of a challenge depending on how you feel about writing and generally expressing your own thoughts, but it’s a great way to fill up your time and to keep a record of what you’re actually seeing, doing and experiencing. We tend to have a little too much trust in our own memories.

Now, I’m all for taking photos to document events and places, but there’s something about writing it all down that better captures the actual feeling and sensation of being somewhere. Photos can show what you saw, but writing will remind you what you thought and how you felt.

This is also a great exercise to help you be present and pay attention to what’s going on around you -- if you’re describing the students at your school or your favorite beachfront restaurant, it’s that much harder to spend your time thinking about the bagels around the corner from your old apartment or how much you miss snow.

This can also be an extremely helpful tool if you’re planning on blogging or sending other written updates to people back at home.

6. Savor Your Moments

When we’re so used to getting and doing everything immediately, taking time to complete a task slowly can feel like a failure –- yet, there’s often significant value in doing things at a less frantic pace. Yes, you can call for delivery pizza –- but it’s not the same as making a meal with your whole extended host family, then sitting down to eat together.

Don’t let yourself get so distracted by all the things you could be doing that you forget to pay attention to what is actually happening around you.

It’s hard to get out of the mindset that you always need to stay busy, but there’s nothing wrong with taking two hours to read outside in a hammock or just sitting on the beach watching the stars come out. It’s not that you don’t have anything else to do -- just sitting there, that is what you’re doing.

Don’t let yourself get so distracted by all the things you could be doing that you forget to pay attention to what is actually happening around you.

Remember, This is a Process

There’s often a lot of pressure put on us to stay busy all the time – and almost as often, we’re the ones creating that pressure. Think about it: when friends ask how you’ve been, “So busy” is one of the most common responses. It’s expected that we’re all busy, all running, all the time, and that if we’re not, we’re doing something wrong.

Yet it’s not like this everywhere, and just because you don’t have 9000 tasks on your to-do list doesn’t mean you’re any less productive, or any less useful as a human being.

Living abroad, especially in a place very different from your home country, is a process that requires time and adaptation. Unlike bus trips, this adaptation doesn’t happen overnight, so you might as well take a deep breath, settle in and enjoy the slower – but no less fun – ride!

Photo Credits: Nora Morgan and Students in Haiti.
Photo of Natalie Southwick

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations. She's currently finishing up a master's degree in Denver, where her main activities are trying not to get in fights about Boston sports teams and attempting to convince herself that the Rocky Mountains are just as good as the Andes, even though we all know that's not true.