The unknown. . . it can be exciting, exhilarating or paralyzing. Even when we’re excited that we might “boldly go where no man has gone before,” there’s usually a bit of terror lurking in the background.
In this internet era, with easy access to satellite photos and maps of the entire globe, there’s not much on this Earth that’s totally unknown. As a future expat, sometimes it just feels that way.
How do you handle that moment of truth every future expat experiences, the time when you have to step out into the unknown — unknown to you, anyway — into a completely new place?
Sooner or later before you move to another country, you’ll need to visit. A place might look perfect on paper and online, but until you get your feet on the ground, see the sights, smell the smells and hear the sounds you won’t know whether you could fit in.
How do you get from Point A (home) to Point B (your country of choice)?
My husband and I are at that jumping-off point right now. In a couple of months, we’re heading to the #1 country on our list, Panama, to try to get a feel for how the locals live.
And we’re doing it on a really, really tight budget.
We’ve never been there before, and we don’t know anyone there.
A “Total Immersion” Adventure
I’m looking at it as a total immersion adventure. Rather than viewing the country through the air-conditioned windows of a rental car, we’ll be viewing it through the windows of a bus. Rather than relaxing in three, four or five-star comfort at night, we’re booking a private room in a backpacker’s hostel.
As one friend exclaimed in shocked disbelief, “so you’re trying to see the worst first?”
We have to find out — quickly — whether we see ourselves fitting in.
Of course, we all have different ideas about what “fitting in” means.
For some it’s a comfortable, American- or European-style home in an expat enclave, or a condo on the beach.
For others, it’s living like the locals do.
Some of that is personal preference, but some of it’s the practical reality that living like the locals is generally cheaper. For us, cheaper is very important, because after the financial meltdown of 2009 we were pretty much wiped out.
If we travel like tourists, how will we know whether we could fit in and feel comfortable with a local-Panamanian lifestyle?
I’m going to share the preparation and planning with you (as well as what we find out while we’re there!) in hopes that it will help you plan your own exploratory trip.
Start with What You Already Know
I’ll bet you don’t get too freaked out about driving from home to an unfamiliar city on the other end of the state. Why? Because
- You already know how to drive
- You have a map
- You know how to read the road signs
- You speak the same language at home as they do in the new city
- You probably have a specific destination planned
What about moving to a new city at the other end of the state? You probably take that in stride, too. You already know how to rent an apartment or buy a house or condo because you’ve done it before. How different can it be?
Now think about exploring a whole new country.
Suddenly it’s not so simple.
Maybe you already know how to drive and you have a map, but you’re not sure you can read the road signs, you know you don’t speak the same language as the local people and you don’t have a specific destination.
Use the Internet to Enhance What You Already Know
You know how to use the internet — you’re reading this, after all. Make the best use of it, and get some help navigating the unfamiliar.
Facebook, LinkedIn and Other Social Sites
Don’t be afraid to use these networks to make contact with people in the country — either local folks or expats. I have some LinkedIn connections who live in Panama, and a couple of Facebook friends with ties to the country. You can bet I’ll be asking for their advice and suggestions.
Join Expat Groups Online
There are several forums where you can talk with people from the country you’re interested in. Here you can ask questions and get suggestions from people who are there, know the area and do speak the language.
- LiveMocha is a language learning website, but one of its best features is the interaction with native speakers. You can network with other members here. Find someone who wants to learn your language from the country you’re considering, and friend them.
- Expat Focus has country forums where expats and expat wannabes hang out. Post your questions and get answers. Download the expat guide for your country.
- Expat Blog is another large site with active country-based forums.
- Boomers Abroad is an excellent resource if you’re at or close to retirement and want to be in touch with others in your chosen country. Heavy emphasis on Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and the Dominican Republic.
- While not a forum, Transitions Abroad has a country-by-country listing of expat websites.
To be continued. . .
Have you used the internet to meet people in your new country? Which site(s) was most helpful to you?