August 3, 2014

5 Truths from 5 Years of Living Abroad.

Lake Atitlan volcano boat

On August 6, 2009, I boarded a plane and took a flight into the unknown.

I brought along two 50-pound suitcases, a Lonely Planet guidebook and my best fur friend, a four-pound Chihuahua named Lucy. I left behind a loving family, fantastic friends, two cats, a cottage, a mortgage, a car, a lot of material possessions, my comfort zone.

When we touched down in Guatemala, all the passengers burst into applause, and I burst into tears—of excitement, fear, trepidation and joy.

I didn’t know whether I’d stay two years (the length of the teaching contract that spurred my move) or more. Now, five years later, married and a mother, and in the process of obtaining permanent residency status, I’m not sure that I’ll ever leave (other than to travel, of course)!

I adore living in Guatemala, though it hasn’t always been easy. It’s impossible to label and list all the valuable life lessons I’ve learned there in the past five years, but here are the first five that come to mind. May they be of benefit!

1. I am sensitive and resilient.

In my three long years in Guate (a.k.a. Guatemala City), I was never robbed at gunpoint, as many of my friends were, but I was lied to, judged, cheated, rear-ended, side-swiped, overruled, manipulated, hated, loved, used, ignored and more. I experienced homesickness, loneliness, anxiety, listlessness, confusion, rejection, grief and frustration. And yet, no matter what, I kept sitting, kept stretching, kept breathing, kept going.

When we think that something is going to bring us pleasure, we don’t know what’s really going to happen. When we think something is going to give us misery, we don’t know. Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all.

~ Pema Chodron

2. We are all running and seeking.

I had the duty and privilege of working with some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest people in the capital city. I was surrounded by a large and lively community of fellow foreigners and teachers. Although at times I struggled to find compassion for our rich, often “spoiled” student body, through my experience as a high school academic counselor of sorts, I saw that the rich kids suffer, too. Many had bodyguards, mansions and helicopters but no nurturing from their parents, no compassion, no self-love.

I experienced the first Noble Truth of the dharma firsthand in a deeper way than ever before. Everybody—the rich and the poor and the middle class—is running away from suffering and pursuing happiness. Though our circumstances vary widely, we all experience pain and bliss, attachment and aversion. We all want to be happy.

3. It’s cool to be alone and single.

It wasn’t cool, in my mind, to be single in Austin in my twenties, watching with envy as my friends and acquaintances coupled off, married and started families. I was always striving for true love, lacking meaningful romance and settling for what I could get.

For my first year Guatemala, I had no exes, no friends-with-benefits, no personal history whatsoever. I basked in solitude. I got to do whatever, whenever I wanted, aside from going to work at a country-club of a school every weekday from 7:30 to 3:00 sharp. I read for pleasure, wrote professionally, practiced solo yoga and meditated more than ever before. It was nothing short of brilliant.

4. A broken heart can be transformational—if we let it be.

A few months into my life abroad, I came home for Christmas and had my heart broken twice—by a guy I’d convinced myself I loved and belonged with, and by one of my best girlfriends who ejected me from her life. Those experiences were painful and not transformational at the time. I felt angry, wronged, judged, stupid, dejected.

A year and a half into my time in Guatemala, my sweet dog, Lucy, my constant companion for nine years, died suddenly from a tragic, accidental fall from my friends’ penthouse apartment. My heart was shocked open, broken, devastated. Yet even from the first night without her, I could feel Lucy’s loyalty and love permeating my being. Even now, if I focus on it, I still can.

“no help for that”

there is a place in the heart that
will never be filled

a space

and even during the
best moments
the greatest

we will know it

we will know it
more than

there is a place in the heart that
will never be filled


we will wait

in that

~ Charles Bukowski, You Get So Alone At Times That It Just Makes Sense (1986)

5. The right doors will swing open at the right time; it is our choice which to walk through.

My third year in Guate was a struggle. I wanted out. I was fed up with the big, dirty, dangerous city, sick of my job, missing several dear friends who’d already moved on, dreaming of a life at the lake yet too scared and financially unstable to take the plunge. I stayed and struggled every damn day, attempting to teach unruly 8th graders who denounced mindfulness, stressing over when and where to make my next big move.

Then, within the span of a few months, I met the man who became my life partner, got pregnant with my precious daughter, moved from the city to the magical Lake Atitlan and started a new job at a splendid little place called Life School.

I discovered that time trumps money and a high quality of life is way more important than having a big salary and health insurance. For me, that means being surrounded by nature and like-minded souls. It means trusting in the natural unfolding of life. It means having faith in change, embracing the unknown, loving the diversity and oneness of my own self and all beings, simultaneously.

Everything we do—our discipline, effort, meditation, livelihood, and every single thing that we do from the moment we’re born until the moment we die—we can use to help us to realize our unity and our completeness with all things. We can use our lives, in other words, to wake up to the fact that we’re not separate: the energy that causes us to live and be whole and awake and alive is just the energy that creates everything, and we’re part of that. We can use our lives to connect with that, or we can use them to become resentful, alienated, resistant, angry, bitter. As always, it’s up to us.

Pema Chodron

Gracias, Guatemala! Te quiero mucho. (Translation: I love you very much.)

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Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: courtesy of the author

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