THE BLOG
07/02/2014 07:36 am ET | Updated Sep 01, 2014

What Do Expats Do All Day? Plenty

By Edd Staton,InternationalLiving.com

This article comes to us courtesy of InternationalLiving.com, the world's leading authority on how to live, work, invest, travel, and retire better overseas.

When you retire abroad, you're in a different country and culture--meeting new friends--and you finally have time to do all the things you've looked forward to doing. Now from a distance, that can seem an almost intimidating prospect. But it's also an invigorating one.

"I really can't tell you what I do all day, but I sure seem to do a lot of it." So responded a friend of mine when I asked her what she'd been up to. It's not the first time I've heard an expat here in Cuenca, Ecuador, express some version of her answer.

We all worked long and hard to reach retirement age. Perhaps in our focus on the daily grind we never took the time to contemplate "what's next." Maybe after years of stress, deadlines, long commutes, and obligations we're looking forward to decompressing and doing absolutely nothing for a while.

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Photo by Hugo Ghiara, InternationalLiving.com

But nature abhors a vacuum, and I know of no one here simply staring out the window wondering how to spend their time. During four years of living in Cuenca I have been amazed to observe the many creative outlets foreign residents dream up to be active and productive. Free from the yoke of employment (although many expat-run businesses have sprung up) folks are starting foundations and volunteering, learning Spanish and teaching English, tending animals and growing food, traveling in Ecuador and far beyond its borders.

There are fitness classes, bridge clubs, religious groups, trivia nights, art exhibits, bingo (yes, even that). If you can't find a group that shares your particular interest, just start it yourself and people will surely show up!

Now, I do sometimes notice gringos sitting alone in bars staring into their beer glasses--at 10:30 in the morning. These are often the same folks who like to complain to whomsoever has the misfortune of sitting next to them about what's wrong with the U.S.--and if you listen long enough, what's wrong with Ecuador. I guess the old maxim is true: The one thing you always bring with you everywhere you go is yourself.

I'm not denying anyone the right to be miserable, but it strikes me as such a wasted opportunity to start a new life abroad without excitement and optimism. This is your time, at last.

You needn't embrace an "extreme makeover." I know several people who spend a lot of time watching a lot of TV. During their working lives they couldn't find time to keep up with favorite shows. Now they can download the entire series of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, or even Bob Newhart to watch at their leisure. Good for them.

Retirement is the perfect time to try on old dreams and see if they still fit. After graduating with a degree in journalism I embarked on a career path that had absolutely nothing to do with my field of study. But I loved writing and never gave up on the possibility that one day I would be able to pursue my interest.

Today I sit here at my computer happily sharing this message with you.

Retirement can also mean going off in entirely unexpected directions. I have a friend who was dissatisfied with the quality of cheese available here in Cuenca. She had never considered the idea of making her own cheese, but she went online and learned how. Now, not only does she enjoy her own fresh, delicious goat cheese and mozzarella, she has also developed a little cottage business that turns a tidy profit each month.

Another friend wanted bagels and discovered that nobody here was making them. He taught himself how using the Internet and started experimenting with different recipes. Both he and his friends loved the results and today he runs a home business supplying lots of customers and several restaurants.

Or what about the guy who thought his wife's rhubarb pie was the best on earth? With no industry experience they decided to open a breakfast and lunch café to share their pies and other homemade goodies. Were they crazy? Maybe a little. Is their restaurant successful? You bet.

Wherever there are expats you'll find stories like these. Because after a lifetime of striving to meet the expectations of others, a lot of expats are open to the notion of exploring a new interest and seeing where it takes them. Retirement abroad is a glorious time to become the person you've always wanted to be. Or to discover who you really are.

Nowadays my wife and I are immersed in a culture where savoring "now" is consistently chosen over rehashing the past or fretting about the future. And we have been transformed by it from Type-A hard-chargers into card carrying members of the "carpe diem" club. Our own children had a bit of trouble adjusting to their newly laidback parents.

Twice a week my wife takes Tai Chi classes in a nearby park. One of her classmates is an 80-something-year-old fellow. When she complimented him on his diligent efforts he replied, "Well, I've decided that if I want to do something, I need to do it now."

What a profound message for all of us. It's your life. It's your time. Maybe retirement is a ways off for you. Regardless of your age, why postpone pursuing your deepest happiness? I encourage you to move in the direction of what makes your heart sing. Wherever you are right now, a whole world of possibilities patiently awaits your arrival.

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