02/25/2013 08:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Do You Do Now? Whatever You Want

Our new friends paused over their meatloaf and mashed potatoes (an expat favorite served by one of the enterprising café owners in our little Ecuadorian town). They had invited us out to lunch to seek some advice now that they'd been in town for a while.

"We found the perfect house," they said. "We have the utilities and Internet hooked up, we opened a bank account, we've been to all the restaurants, we've gone on every available tour of the area and we've taken about 10,000 photos.

"We've met most of the other expats, and we hang out with the ones we like, but they come and go so much that we can't get anything regular organized. Seems like we're starting to spend all of our time watching satellite TV, browsing Facebook and eating at our favorite restaurants... which is just about what we were doing before we moved to Ecuador.

"Is there something we're missing? Is there more to it than this?"


It wasn't the first time we'd heard these questions. In fact, we hear them often from expats who are in their first six or eight months into their new living-abroad adventure. The everyday details of life in a foreign country, which at first seemed all but impossible to manage, have been... managed.

The adrenaline has worn off a bit. The mysteries have largely revealed themselves. A routine has been established. And sometimes, after a few breathless months of dealing with and overcoming new and unfamiliar situations, beginning expats can find that they've succeeded in establishing a routine that looks a lot like their old one... albeit with better weather, nicer scenery and lower overhead.

That's perfect for many expats -- that's exactly what they were looking for in the first place. They wanted a cheaper, better version of what they had at home, and there are plenty of countries where they can come reasonably close, such as Ecuador, Panama, Mexico, Costa Rica and Nicaragua -- all places we've lived or spent time. But some expats have different expectations.

They expect the very act of moving abroad to change everything in their lives... even the people they were before they moved. Then they wake up one morning to find that they brought those people with them, and they're living life much the same way as before, but in a more exotic location. And, like our friends in the café, they're a bit dismayed, thinking maybe they've missed something about the whole expat experience.

They haven't, of course. They're right where they should be for expats at this stage. They've figured things out in their new country well enough to actually have a routine, which is a real milestone in itself. The next step is deciding if it's the routine they really want... and doing something about it if it's not. The old saying really is true: The only piece of baggage you can't leave behind when you move abroad is yourself. But if you do have a real desire to change, reinvent, grow, progress, retry your life, moving can help make it possible.

This is the thing to remember about retiring abroad... the move itself will not immediately change you, yourself. You can't simply move to another country one day and expect to wake up the next a different person.

But there is something about moving abroad that helps you see, often with a detail you've never known before, the contents of that one inescapable piece of baggage called "you" that follows you wherever you go.

Moving abroad can help reveal things that may have been stuck in the corner or under the lining of that bag for years... a novelist, a painter, a travel writer, an entrepreneur. You usually find them about the time you've taken care of the necessities, gotten your feet under you and have the time to ask yourself, as our friends in the café did, "What do we do now? Are we missing something? Is there more to it than this?"

There was more to it for one friend, who moved abroad to simplify her life but discovered she missed the "complications" of a pet to care for... she started a pet-sitting service that provides all the animal companionship she needs, plus some extra cash.

There was more to it, as well, for friends who have watched their little restaurant evolve into the venue for a Friday-night jam session... where their talented 11-year-old son polishes his performance skills by playing and singing with accomplished local musicians.

There was more to it for another friend who moved his mother and father with him to South America to save money... He discovered that their love of local handicrafts turned into a thriving export business.

All these folks spent their first few months anxiously learning the ropes and meeting the challenges of new locations and ways of doing things... until they established their own routines and had unpacked enough of their own baggage to see what surprises were waiting for them. That's exactly the time to check the corners of your own bag, because you'll never find what's in there until you've unpacked it and examined it closely... and moving abroad is a wonderful opportunity to do just that.